Yosemite National Park, located in eastern California, spans the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains and is known for its exquisite scenic beauty and biodiversity. Yosemite is one of the most visited and most well-known national parks in America and is considered by many to be a sacred space.
Yosemite is also important to the study of religion in the American West because, as a location, the park evokes strong religious experiences for its visitors due to its unique and breathtaking natural beauty. For many people, Yosemite was and is a place for religious contemplation and/or worship in which they can experience the manifestation of the divine in nature. When early visitors saw the towering granite cliffs, they “compared them to the walls of Gothic cathedrals” and “saw Yosemite as a new Eden” (Perrottet 1). John Muir, considered by many to have played a major role in the designation of Yosemite as a National Park, was one of the first people to live in and document his own religious interpretation of the park. A friend of Muir, Theresa Yelverton, wrote that Muir proclaimed on a hike through Yosemite: “O this is grand! This is magnificent! Listen to the voice of the Lord; how he speaks [through] the sublimity of his power and glory!” (Perrottet 3). Muir had a deep spiritual connection to this landscape and was excited by all of the religious symbolism he found in Yosemite that was unlike that of any other location.
Yosemite in the modern era is still valued as a sacred space by the National Park Service and the people who enjoy visiting the park. According to Kerry Mitchell, the National Park Service actually manages the park in a way that allows people to privately construct their own spiritual interpretations of the park. Yosemite itself is a sacred space, but the National Park Service works to enhance that sacredness for all of its visitors. One of the ways that NPS does this, argues Mitchell, is by managing the “bodily discipline” in order to “individualize park experience.” By “bodily discipline,” Mitchell is referring to the ways in which “the bodies of visitors are subject to pedestrian and vehicular traffic management in order to place them with respect to each other and the environment in sensually effective ways” (432). Even though National Parks are public spaces, they can still be enjoyed in a private and deeply personal way that enhances one’s religious or spiritual experience. In the case of Yosemite, the Park Service built two one way roads on either side of the river that runs through the valley so that the “visitor’s bodies are distributed so that they fall within each other’s field of vision much less often than they do outside of the park” which serves to “yield a pastoral quality to an area with an otherwise high population density” (Mitchell 433). This allows people to focus on the wilderness and the natural beauty of the park, instead of getting distracted by other tourists. The National Park Service does not tell people how they should interpret the sublime wilderness of Yosemite, but instead allows individuals to interpret it through their own spiritual lens by providing a mental frame for their experience and enhancing the feeling of sacredness for the space.
–Jessica Weston, December 2015
Suggestions for Further Reading:
- Jump, Herbert Atchinson. The Yosemite: A Spiritual Interpretation. Boston: The Pilgrim Press, 1916.
- Muir, John. The Yosemite. New York: The Century Co., 1912.
- Kneeland, Samuel. The Wonders of the Yosemite Valley, and of California. Boston: A. Moore, 1871.
- Stoll, Mark. “Milton in Yosemite: ‘Paradise Lost’ and the National Parks Idea.” Environmental History 13, no. 2. (2008): 237–74.
Featured Image: Yosemite Half Dome, by Heiko von Raußendorff cropped for use here. Used according to the terms of the Creative Commons License.
Image 1: Jonh Muir with a walking stick, in the mountains, by Francis M. Fritz. Public domain.
Image 2: Don’t Forget to Watch the Road, by Dawn Endico. Used according to the terms of the Creative Commons License.